Updated March 25, 2021
The picture above shows an ear problem in Adelaide that’s also found around the world. It only affects the margins and tips of the ears. The most common cause will surprise you.
Causes Of Ear Tip Scabs & Crusts
There are at least four reasons why a dog can have sores on the ear margin:
- Damage caused by scratching or shaking due to an ear infection
- Infestation with sarcoptic mange mites (‘fox mange’)
- Other skin problems such as allergy
- Attack by blood-sucking insects
Any ear tip injury that keeps being damaged by head shaking will heal slowly or not at all.
Ear Infections commonly lead to damage to the ear. However, it’s unusual that only the ear tip will be involved. Therefore, turn over the ear and inspect the ear canal. It may look red, swollen or dirty looking with a musty odour. Don’t forget to check the other ear as many problems are bilateral.
Sarcoptic Mange is quite hard to diagnose, but dogs are extremely itchy when you touch the ear edge. They are also itchy elsewhere, especially the elbows and the belly. If you’re using one of the products that treat and prevent Sarcoptes mites it’s very unlikely.
Other Skin Problems are extremely common, but once again there should be other areas affected like the belly, feet and under the tail. Click here for pictures of other specific head lesions.
Fly Bite Dermatitis is the most common cause of ear margin problems in dogs.
What Is Fly Bite Dermatitis?
Blood-sucking flies prefer to target the edges of the ears of dogs. When dogs live in areas with these insects, repeated irritation causes crusts and scabs to form at the site of the bites.
Dogs then scratch or shake their heads and damage the area further, until it starts bleeding. Then it gets infected, making matters even worse. Eventually, you end up with a raw ear tip wound like in the picture.
This causes the dog to shake their head, propelling the ear tips at high speed against the side of the head. It’s not unusual to have sprays of blood right up your walls.
But I Don’t See Any Flies!
Flies come biting mostly after dusk so this problem mainly affects dogs that sleep outside. Owners rarely see the flies, which are often parasites of other animals such as horses. If your dog sleeps inside, you should reconsider the other possible causes above.
Treatment of Fly Bite Dermatitis
You have two choices:
- Let your dog stay inside
- Use an insect repellent on the ears each afternoon (I find Muscaban® works best)
If you don’t act, the wounds tend to get bigger and even can cause permanent defects in the ear margin. Head shaking also often leads to the development of aural haematomas.
Treatment of Bleeding Ear Tips
Infected, painful ear tip wounds often cause more head shaking and damage in a vicious circle. Here are my recommendations to tackle this frustrating situation:
- Treat the underlying condition
- Use antibiotics to reduce secondary infection
- Use anti-inflammatories to reduce pain and swelling
- Use light dressings (heavy ones only make dogs shake more)
I have learnt over the years to use a very lightweight plastic adhesive strip (Band-Aid®) to cover the wounds. This prevents further trauma from head shaking, is very easy to apply, and is usually tolerated by dogs. These need to be changed twice daily and are only for temporary use after advice from your vet.
That, of course, is the final and most important point. Don’t go it alone; your vet will have much better advice based on your particular dog and their environment. Without proper attention to an underlying problem, you’ll just be in a vicious circle.
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.